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Battle of the Golden Wood  by Marnie

Under the trees of Mirkwood the orcs took heart, and in the gloom beneath its writhing branches there was yet hard fighting. There Oswy saw a wood that was Sorcerous indeed, and as he fought he felt the hungry, hateful glare of many eyes on his face. The elvish army slowed, and now their bright blades sliced through cobwebs like steel hawsers, and their arrows as often brought down scuttling spiders the size of bull calves, as fleeing orcs. Even the trees ever and anon would lift a root in time to snap a horse's leg, or drop a branch upon the elvish cavalry who rode beneath their twisted shade.

But slowly, steadily, Lorien's forces made ground. Where they passed the darkness lightened, and the red flames of eyes went out. Moonlight began to fall, in small, glistening patches, into thickets that had not seen light for a thousand years. Then many dark things scuttled away and did not return, and the army of Celeborn spread like dawn light through the desolate glades of Eryn Fuin.

The ground had been rising for some time when Oswy saw the trees fail. He looked up and beheld slopes of ash, packed and reeking with smoke, rising to a barren, jagged hill. A fortress stood upon it, the shape of despair. A high tower rose there, up and up into a sky still smeared with vapour. Many small windows it had, their shape cramped and mean, and a red light came from them, pulsing, as though all burnt within.

At the sight the remnants of Dol Guldur's army broke ranks and fled in disorder for the tower.

"Erethon!" Celeborn cried, "Stop them! I want not the fortress manned against us."

It had grown dark. Even above the smokes of the tower the sky was black, and Oswy saw little of the final battle. Only the archers of Erethon springing from the woods and running as fleet as deer on either side of the fleeing orcs. The enemy stumbled, and thinned, and fell, and for a long time the night was riven with orcish screaming, and the sound of the elves bowstrings, and their laughter. Then came silence. Oswy wrapped his arms about himself and shivered, and thought that perhaps the songs of Rohan were right in this - fey, the elves were. Dangerous and beautiful and deadly, and he did not wish ever to be their enemy.

The darkness was no impediment to Celeborn's sight, he who had been born before the sun. He watched as Erethon's garrison hunted the last orcs beneath the curtain wall of Dol Guldur, with the arrowslits of the Enemy glaring down upon them. One orc only escaped their vigilance, hurling itself to safety and howling of the oncoming vengeance in a voice that would tell any who yet dwelt within that their day of doom had come.

Mist was thick upon the ground, and the radiance of far off stars seemed to snare itself in the harness and banners of the heralds of the elves. They blew a challenge, waited for the notes to be acknowledged, and then called out in their clear voices. "Enemies of all free people, your Master is overthrown. Your army is slain and your fortress taken. Come forth and surrender into the hands of the Lord of Lorien, and he will offer you mercy. If you do not surrender, not one of you will be left alive."

No answer came, but the returning heralds reported that there was yet something in there with ears to hear - they had felt it.

Unsurprised, cautiously pleased, Celeborn stationed archers at each of the gates, the salley ports, and at all but one of the secret passages Mithrandir had discovered when he entered Dol Guldur in search of Thrain. He did not expect to have to take Dol Guldur in open warfare, for orcs were no opponent who would fight to honour a slain leader, or for their own renown. Without a chief to keep them together through main terror, each one of them would now be concerned only for himself. Each one would have in mind to seize whatever of value he could find and get out - to run to safety.

Celeborn withdrew the main force of his army beyond even the night sight of goblins, and disposed them in hiding about the one entrance he had selected to appear unguarded. He waited.

Murk thickened into fog, and the night was all whiteness against the black strokes of branches. Dew pearled on the manes of horses, and around the hoods of the elves who lay in concealment, speaking in hushed voices.

An hour passed, or more, and suddenly there came the whine of bowstrings from the north and the west together. A clamour of orc voices; the sound of bodies falling, and silence once again. Reaching out to his sentries opened minds, Celeborn perceived that the orcs had attempted to break out of the siege in two directions, and had been driven back. Their next move would be to send scouts through each of the other exits. The archers there knew their orders well, and would let themselves be seen.

All stilled again. The night wore on in watchfulness. Heavy fog steamed against the thirsty rocks of the scoured hill. Then, at the turning point of the night, when the darkness is deepest and the memory of sunlight furthest away, the orcs began to emerge. A company of them, united only in their desire to flee, squirmed out of the ground like a nest of ants, looked about themselves, wary, snuffing the air. The last came; a great Uruk with the keys of the fortress on an iron collar about his neck.

"Right, you maggots," he growled, "I said there'd be a tunnel those filthy elves didn't know about! Anyone else wanna argue? Now keep together. Run!"

The mist eddied and opened, forms moved in it, light of foot, with shining blades and voices like the song of rain. The orcs fled into the night and were cut down, one by one, before they ever glimpsed their foe. The Uruk fell last - to an axe blow - and Celeborn bent down and took from the severed neck the keys to Dol Guldur, most ancient of the dwellings of Sauron.

Celeborn looked at the ring of iron that beslimed his hands with gore, and found this ending hard to believe - so often in his imagination it had been he who was vanquished, he who fell while Lorien burned around him. Such good fortune was hard to understand - hard to trust. How could the long defeat now end in victory?

He shook himself, feeling the dark power of Dol Guldur's very stones like an icy chill over his face. Neither trust nor understanding were required, only action. There might be prisoners in the Tower's depths who could yet be saved - thralls and hostages to deliver from torment.

"Merethir," he said, "See the encampment is made secure, and select me ten of your best close quarter fighters. Those who are resilient in mind. Who are not prone to nightmares, nor overly sensitive."

"I understand," said his younger kinsman soberly, but his eyes were distressed, "I would we could burn the place entire. I would you did not have to go in, Lord."

"As do I," Celeborn looked at the bulk of black masonry, the heavy crouch of it. An evil voice whispered in its walls, and its mortar was mixed with blood. Sunk and still and motionless, like a cockroach frozen in a block of ice, waiting to be warmed back to life, there lay in its stones the last and most immovable spells of Sauron. Though he would not admit it, he dreaded to go in. Of a certainty, it would bring back unwelcome memories of his imprisonment in the dwarf halls of Novrod, the helpless suffering of the most abject time in his life. "But there may be rooms within which only my strength will open, and doubtless it is in those dungeons that Sauron has locked his enemies, to torture them."

"Any prisoners will have been killed by now," said Merethir sadly, "Surely?"

"Can we take that chance? Would it not be a fine way to begin in this new world free of evil; by burning our imprisoned kinsfolk alive in the tower because we dared not go in." Celeborn sighed. "No, it must be done. We must be sure."

The gate of Dol Guldur lay open, and a stench came out of it. The air within was fetid and warm, stained with fire. It steamed and smoked as it flowed into the forest, and the mists under the trees swirled strangely at its touch.

Oswy watched the gathering of the ten knights who would accompany their Lord inside. Grim were their faces, and their knuckles were white as they gripped their weapons. Having faced the Master of this Tower - Khamul the Sorcerer, Oswy felt he had seen enough. His mind was raw with the touch of evil, and there was that about the very shape of the walls which made him sick with terror. But still, he was Celeborn's esquire, so he rose and went to them. Walking was as laborious as through quicksand as he fought his body's desire to stay away. Even so, he arrived at the group of warriors too soon for his liking. He sank to one knee, his banner still in his hand, and when Celeborn looked at him with surprise he swallowed and said, "Lord, where you go I follow. If it be your will, I will come with you.."

Then Celeborn smiled, and in his eyes was no memory of Oswy's threats, nor his desecration of Calandil's grave, only respect. But he shook his head. "No, Edhellon. I would not ask a man with broken legs to run. I do not ask you - who have but newly emerged from one nightmare - to plunge into another. Stay here and allow me to spare you the one darkness I may."

The small party of elves raised the hoods on their grey cloaks. At once it was hard to see where they stood - grey as mist, grey as the stones of the tower. They moved, like an eddy of breeze through the fog, shadows sliding over the walls of the fortress. They entered its open mouth and were swallowed.

For some time Oswy stood and watched the red cavern of the door, wondering if he had been slighted by this piece of compassion. When he turned, it was to see that the elves already had camp fires burning in a cheery circle about the perimeter, and had begun to put up tents. Ardil came forward and pressed into his hand a cup of warmed wine and water. "Come," he said, "Take some rest now, for the Lord will be fell and full of fury when he returns; and then you will have to keep up with him."

Guards were posted, and the night deepened. Around the fires many elves were now cooking the provisions they had brought with them - for scarce anything worth eating could be found in this forest. Oswy peeled the skin from pignuts, his gaze on the bulk of black tower rather than on his hands.

Around midnight the fog lifted and whisped away. On the west of the encampment a fair voice lifted in song, and the stars began to come out, sharp and cold in a sky no longer smeared by fume. The smoke of the elves' fires rose straight up, and it seemed they were in a hall of misty pillars, roofed with infinity. "Ardil," said Oswy, in a feeling somewhere between ice and awe, "Should we be afraid?"

"We?" Ardil's smile was sad, "You, young child of Men, should be full of joy. And we...should be satisfied that we leave you a cleaner world. Only the servants of Sauron need fear tonight."

Then he took a flute from where it lay in the breast of his tunic and began to play. Oswy heard the Sea in his music - the skirl of wild winds, the high piping notes of wheeling birds, the whisper and crash onto rocks of a great ocean. Overhead a breeze passed for the first time through the tangled branches, and the noise was of cold surf on lonely beaches. It made Oswy want to weep, though he could not say why.

So the night stole on. He slept a little, fitfully. The next day he spent in menial tasks - currying the pale horses, cleaning armour, trying not to watch Dol Guldur's gaping door with growing anxiety. But sheer tiredness wiped the following night from memory, and at dawn shapes moved once more inside the tower. The scouting party returned out of the depths of darkness, stepped out into a cool, bright sunrise.

No wound did they have on them, but their faces were grey and sheened with a sweat of horror. One bore in his arms a swaddled thing which might, once, have been man or elf. It screamed and gibbered at the touch of light on its pallid skin. The elf who carried it turned swiftly towards the healers, but not before Oswy had seen its eyes. They had been sewn open.

Shuddering, Oswy found a cup, filled it with the hot wine, not troubling to mix water with it, and he took it to Celeborn. The elf-lord was leaning against the wall of the fortress - his hands spread and braced as though he held up its whole weight. His head was bent until his brow almost touched the filth-blackened stones, and his eyes were shut. He spoke, quietly, urgently, to the stones, and they seemed to lift and settle, groaning reluctantly. A tremor passed through the earth, and the wall rippled for a moment - like a sheet of parchment fluttered by the wind.

Then Celeborn gritted his teeth and straightened, wearied, his eyes narrowed in anger. "I have not the strength."

"My lord?" Oswy handed him the wine, and he drank it back.

"I do not have the power to bring the citadel down this way." said Celeborn. He strode over to where Merethir was ordering the disposition of guards, and Oswy went with him, reflecting that Ardil had spoken wisely. He had not yet seen his lord quite so livid or so buoyant with wrath. It crackled about him; a vivid energy.

"My lord?" said Merethir.

"Hearken to me," said Celeborn, "It is my will to leave no stone standing upon another in this place. I would have even the memory of it wiped away. Turn the Enemy's own siege weapons against it. Fell it to the ground!"

"It will be done." Merethir grinned, viciously.

So it was that, in the next days, the army of Lorien themselves gathered the pieces of the two further engines, which had been meant for their destruction, and wrought them together, and turned them upon the tower of shadows. But it would not fall. Then sappers tunnelled beneath it and set a fire in its roots, but it would not burn. A black will was there, in the very stones, that set itself against the work, and all efforts, whether of craft or of command proved in vain.

A week passed, and still the tower stood.

Elsewhere, however, much was achieved. The injured sent home, the dead buried. Within ten leagues of the stronghold no spider lived, and every orc redoubt and stronghold was taken. Lorien elves guarded Southern Mirkwood, and already began to speak of it with affection, as though it were their own.

On the seventh day, seeing the fortress yet standing, Celeborn's patience at last failed. He called the army to him, and Merethir with it. "Many were the griefs in Lorien that needed tending, and I thought to leave my Lady there to achieve it," he said. "But it seems we cannot manage without her. Send for her, therefore. Ask her to come and tear down this final spoil of her victory."

Oswy brought Celeborn's horse and he mounted swiftly, taking up a spear. "We are now secure enough here to leave you a small garrison and withdraw the army. That I will do. For it comes to my mind that Thranduil must have been as hard pressed as we during the war, and may still be in danger. We ride to his aid. Sound the horns!"

So the white and silver horns of Lorien were wound upon the hill of Amon Lanc, and now their music had in it a belling like that of hounds on a trail. In dawn sunlight the blackened boughs of Mirkwood seemed already greener, remembering perhaps what the world had been like in elder days, before the coming of Sauron. But the army of Lorien formed up swiftly and passed like a mighty river, washing away the barren darkness beneath the trees, heading North.

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